I heard from an emerging writer recently who said she’d been crushed, devastated, destroyed by the feedback she’s received on her book, which she recently self-published, and by the lack of sales. She was so convinced it was brilliant. Now she feels as though readers are idiots or else she’s utterly deluded. Either way, she’s done. Quit. She won’t write again.
Back at the beginning of time, before self-publishing became so popular, writers developed over years, sometimes decades. A writer became a writer by spending a lot of time reading, figuring out how writers he or she admired crafted wonderful books and, in turn, spending a fair period of time (often years) learning to do this him or herself.
There are, of course, some notable exceptions — John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, for example. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, for another. S.E. Hinton’s Rumblefish and The Outsiders. All young writers who seemed to arrive at the page fully formed. I’m sure you have your own list of such prodigies. They are exceptions to the rule. Maybe you are one such prodigy, too, but probably not.
Not being anything like a prodigy myself, I learned to write by antique methods. I followed Beckett’s advice from Westward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I think that’s still the way I write.
Unless YOU happen to be a child-prodigy (and again, maybe you are) I think slowly is a good way to learn the craft of writing. Taking one’s time to develop as a writer, to find a voice, to read many, MANY books and, perhaps most important of all, giving oneself permission to fail in private, rather than in public, are good things.
I find fewer and fewer emerging writers willing to do this, however. With the bedazzled carrot of self-publishing dangling before their eyes, they are impatient. They want to be authors NOW, rather than writers for life. Like contestants on one of the television singing competitions that are so popular, they want to show off their literary chops to the world immediately. Convinced of their own talent, they are confident they will naturally rise above the dross and sail into the stratosphere of instant celebrity.
How many emerging writers of real potential, like the writer mentioned in the opening paragraph, do we lose, I wonder, when their first, half-baked efforts are failures, when their dreams of fame and accolades lie cracked and tarnished at the bottom of their computer screens?
Here are some truths:
1.Publishing is one tough business. It always has been. Very few people have anything like even a modicum of success, if success is measured in terms of money and fame.
2.Most people who think they can write a good book can’t. Just because you can talk, or write a witty email, doesn’t mean you have what it takes to write a good book. In fact, just because you have a wildly entertaining story to tell, doesn’t mean you have what it takes to tell it.
3. Just because you publish a book (and especially if you self-publish a book), doesn’t mean it’s very good, or that you’ll ever publish another one, or that you’ll have a career as a writer. These days anyone at all can self-publish, and I have yet to hear of a self-publishing company that didn’t tell the ‘writer’ her book was better than others. Sorry, I know that’s harsh, but it’s true. Consider yourself warned.
4.Becoming a fine writer takes a long time. You will probably have to support yourself at another job as you develop.
5.You will probably have to support yourself with another job AFTER you develop and even after you’ve published with a decent publishing house. Writing pays very little for the vast majority of people.
6. And this is a big one — you will write a lot of garbage. Even good writers write a lot of garbage. It is best to do this in private or within a circle of gentle supporters, like a really good writing group or class. Having your work decimated by uncaring strangers is one of the best ways I know to shut down your emerging talent.
7. You will think I’m lying here, but I’m not: there’s no rush. People have been telling stories to each other for thousands of years. Regardless of the technological shift in delivery methods, we’re going to keep right on doing it. Take your time. Learn your craft. Find your voice. Experiment. Stretch. Write a couple of bad books, but DON’T publish them. Although you’ll learn an enormous amount from your failures, there’s no reason to flap them out there on the street in everyone’s face. They won’t love you for it.
8. If you give yourself permission to write but NOT to publish immediately, you’ll be amazed at what you accomplish. You will give yourself the gift of possibility, without having the critical reader hovering over your shoulder. If, however, you do want to publish, how about trying to get some short stories or op eds or essays published first. That can be tremendously sustaining and affirming as well as good for your potential career. And, because the stage is smaller, if you fail there, well, there’s not so much at stake. Either way, don’t take the cake out of the oven before it’s cooked. It will fall.
9. Don’t write unless you HAVE to write. If you’re not a real writer — by which I mean someone with the obsession (disease) that manifests itself by not allowing the afflicted to do anything else without feeling as though their hair’s on fire – then there are thousands of more pleasant, less neuroses-inducing and far more lucrative ways to spend your time.
10. If you really must write, then do that. Keep doing it. Don’t worry about publishing so much until you’ve truly mastered your craft. Don’t rush it. Bad things will happen to the person who takes control of an aircraft’s control panel before they’ve learned to fly (and land) the plane.
In short, protect your talent — don’t toss it out in the world before it’s ready just because all the other kids are doing it. A slow-simmered stew often leads to better results than a short-lived greasy flare-up.